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Case Study: The Irish Republican Army (IRA)

Skrevet av Roy Stranden

Publisert 6. januar 2013


The Origin of The Irish Republican Army

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was founded in 1922. After operating for more than 80 years it is arguably the longest-operating terrorist organization in Western Europe (START, 2011d). The origin of the IRA has it roots in a deep conflict over the influence and governance from Great Britain (BBC, 2011a).


Great Britain has ruled over Ireland from the 17th century (Darby, 1995; Fitzduff & O’Hagan, 2009). However, after a violent guerrilla war between British forces in Ireland and Irish separatist, this changed in 1921. By then the war had lasted for three years. The conflict temporarily ceased when the Irish separatists lead by the political party Sinn Fein made an agreement with the British government. This treaty was called the Anglo-Irish Treaty and granted full independence to the southern 26 counties, while retaining British sovereignty of the remaining six in the north (START, 2011d). These six northern counties have later been known as Northern Ireland.


However, there was a large minority who was opposed to the treaty and wanted to unite the whole of Ireland as a republic. Civil war erupted between those who opposed the treaty (separatist) and those who supported it (loyalists). The separatist lost the civil war but continued to oppose the treaty and would not recognize the legitimacy of the Republic of Ireland nor the Northern Ireland as part of Great Britain (START, 2011d).

Members of the anti-treaty faction who had participated in the guerrilla war and lost the civil war founded the IRA. They wanted to continue the fight for independence and a united Ireland (START, 2011d).


Aims and ideology

Since the Anglo-Irish Treaty the IRAs aim has been to gather all 32 counties in Ireland into one united republic, free from British rule (START, 2011d).


Contrary to others who believed a solution could come through political and peaceful means the members of the IRA believed that the only, or best way, to achieve their goal for a free and united Ireland is through violence (BBC, 2011b; BBC History, 2007).


However, the IRA has ceased using violence and engaged in a political process to achieve their goal (Archick, 2011; The Security Service (MI5), 2011b, 2011c). Some IRA splinter groups, however, still reject the political process and continue to use violence to achieve their goal (The Security Service (MI5), 2011b, 2011d).



The IRA has existed for many years and there have been a number of leaders. In addition, due to several internal conflicts within the IRA caused by different events, the IRA has split into different factions.


The first split happened at the beginning of the period later called The Troubles in 1969 when the IRA split into two factions, the Official IRA (OIRA) and Provisional IRA (PIRA).


While the PIRA continued their armed campaign against the British, the OIRA was opposed to this. The OIRA, being a Marxist-oriented republican organization, wanted to transform the fight into a united class struggle (START, 2011e). However the OIRA declared ceasefire in 1972, making the PIRA de facto the IRA (START, 2011d, 2011e).


Events during the 1980s and 1990s once again split members of IRA into different factions such as the Real IRA (RIRA) and Continuity IRA (CIRA) (Lynn, 2011; START, 2011b, 2011d, 2011f). RIRA and CIRA were opposed to the IRA´s participation in the peace process (START, 2011d, 2011f; The Security Service (MI5), 2011a).


Key leaders of the IRA is John Kelly, Thomas Murphy, Bobby Sands and John Stevenson (START, 2011d). The key leader of the OIRA is Sean Garland (START, 2011e). Key leaders of the RIRA is Michael McKevitt and Colm Murphy (START, 2011f).



The IRA refers to its members as volunteers, which are organized into units. These units were organized into companies, the companies into battalions, which could be part of a brigade. The leadership structure at battalion and company level was mainly the same with its own commanding officer, quartermaster, explosives officer and intelligence officer (Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia, 2011a).


In 1977 the IRA reorganized in order to improve operational security (START, 2011d; Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia, 2011a). A parallel system of Active Service Units (ASU) were formed to conduct terrorist operations while the old “companies” were used to police nationalist areas, gather intelligence and hide weapons. The ASUs weapons were controlled by a quartermaster who were under direct control of the IRA leadership (Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia, 2011a).

At the top of the IRA leadership we find the IRA Army Council, which have the authority to conduct day-to-day leadership over operations in addition to directing policy and taking major tactical decisions. Members of the Army Council are selected from the IRA Executive, which in turn are selected by the IRA General Army Conventions (GAC) (Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia, 2011a).


IRA´s political wing is Sinn Fein (Fitzduff & O’Hagan, 2009; McAllister, 2004). The political party is closely associated with the IRA and there are those who suspect or believe that members of Sinn Fein has had an active role in the IRA (Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia, 2011c).


Strategies and Attack Record

There have been two main strategies used by republicans to separate Ireland from Great Britain, a political strategy and a military strategy (McAllister, 2004). However, between the 1923 election and the 1986 Sinn Fein Conference, Sinn Fein’s political strategy was abstention from any participation in state institutions (McAllister, 2004).


The main tactics used by the IRA in its military strategy has been bombings, assassinations and armed assault, in addition to kidnappings, punishment beatings and extortion (START, 2011c). They have also conducted smuggling and robberies in order to raise funds and arms (START, 2011d).


Although advance warnings were given in some cases, attacks without prior warnings were also conducted (START, 2011d). The IRAs main target in Northern Ireland has been the British armed forces and the police, in addition to attacks against Protestants, both paramilitaries and civilians. However, they have also carried out attacks against British armed forces, police, government officials and civilians on the British mainland and in Europe (START, 2011d).


The PIRA and RIRA did also targeted financial and commercial target in London between 1988 and 2001, trying to disrupt the British economy (London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 2005; Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia, 2011b). Even though it can be argued whether they succeeded or not, the costs were high (BBC Message Board, 2005; London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 2005). The 1993 bombing of Bishopsgate in the City of London alone had an insured cost of over 900 million USD. The total cost, however, was higher (London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 2005). The RIRA continue to express their intention to hit financial and commercial targets (Doyle & Slack, 2010).


Until Bobby Sands death, after a 66 day long hunger strike, the only strategy the IRA seamed interested in was achieving their goal through violence. Before he died in prison Sands were elected as an MP to the British Parliament, and a huge crowd of an estimated 100,000 people attended his funeral (Melaugh, 2011b). After this the republican leadership became aware of the political opportunity these events provided (BBC History, 2007; Macauley, 2011; McAllister, 2004). Over the next 25 years this lead to the decrease of violence by the IRA in search for a political solution through Sinn Fein, who ended their policy of abstentionism in 1986 (Macauley, 2011; Melaugh, 2011a).


The IRA declared ceasefire in August 1994. Even though the ceasefire for a short period broke down in 1996, it resumed in 1997 and lead to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. However it was not until July 2005 that the IRA formally gave the order to end violence, and pledging to only use non-violent means to achieve their goal for a united and independent Ireland (Archick, 2011; START, 2011d; The Security Service (MI5), 2011c). This was later the same year confirmed by the Independent Monitoring Commission, who reported that the IRA in fact had scrapped their arsenal (Archick, 2011; START, 2011d; The Security Service (MI5), 2011c). In spite of that, members of the IRA continue to engage in criminal activities such as smuggling and robberies (START, 2011d). Another concern is the group the Catholic Reaction Force (CRF), which first emerged in November 1983 (START, 2011a).


It is widely believed that the CRF is a cover for the IRA to use when it wants to distance itself from attacks that may lead to further political repercussions of sectarian killings and violent threats (START, 2011a). The group has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against Protestant civilians, and threats have been directed against schools, hospitals and other traditionally immune targets during the conflict (START, 2011a).


It remains a possibility that the CRF will conduct further attacks against Protestant, even though the IRA has decommissioned their arms and publicly ended armed struggle. By utilizing the CRF the IRA still may be able to abide by their pledge of non-violence and conduct retaliatory attacks (START, 2011a).



The IRA´s Impact

The IRA, together with their counterparts the loyalists, has had a major impact on the Irish and British society. The sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland reflects a struggle between different national, cultural, and religious identities, and has caused much hate and fear among the population.


In total there has been more than 3,600 deaths and over 35,000 injured as a result of the conflict since the Troubles (Fitzduff & O’Hagan, 2009; Hancock, 1998). The IRA´s impact in terms of human lives lost and injured together with the economic cost has also been high. With approximately 1,800 dead and thousands more injured, the IRA was responsible for more deaths than any other group during the Troubles (Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia, 2011a).

Even the economic costs have been high, although, it is argued that it has not disrupted the British economy. Even after the 1993 Bishopsgate bombing the British economy continued to recover after the incident, just as it had before (London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 2005).


The future of The IRA

Even though the IRA has ended violence it is believed that splinter groups and loyalist paramilitary groups and continued sectarian tension may have the potential to drag the IRA into terrorism (START, 2011d).


The splinter group CIRA has rejected the peace process and the call to disarm, and remains committed to armed struggle to achieve their goals. The group size is believed to be between 20 and 50 persons and their main tactics is to use small bombs such as tossed explosives, car bombs, and assassinations. CIRAs attacks have also included robberies, kidnappings, hijackings, extortions and other economic crimes (START, 2011b). The group is the only Irish republican group that has not declared ceasefire after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and should be considered dangerous (START, 2011b).


The RIRA does also remain devoted to using violence and terrorist tactics to reach their goal of a united and free Ireland, and have on several occasions tried to derail the peace process by resorting to violent attacks such as bombings and assassinations (START, 2011f). RIRA is also responsible for the single larges terrorist attack in Northern Ireland´s history when they detonated a car bomb in the town Omagh, killing 29 people (START, 2011f). The group´s founder and leader have called for the disbandment of the group after being arrested and sentenced on terrorism charges (START, 2011f). However, the attacks continue, even though much of their current activity is connected to organized crime such as protection rackets and smuggling (START, 2011f).


There has been according to MI5 an increase in activity over the last few years, and it is their assessment that both CIRA and RIRA continue to plan and carry out attacks (Doyle & Slack, 2010; Simpson, 2011; The Security Service (MI5), 2011a). The threat level for Northern Ireland related terrorism is set separately for Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The threat level for Northern Ireland is SEVERE, which means that a terrorist attack is highly likely. For Great Britain the threat level is SUBSTANTIAL, which means that an attack is a strong possibility (The Security Service (MI5), 2011d).



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